A funny meme came through my Facebook feed yesterday. It was a picture of Mr. Ed, of TV’s yesteryear. The caption was simply, “Stable Genius.” A horse, of course.
The airwaves have blazed with opinions about what comprises “mental fitness,” and the character in question has made sure we know his own assessment of superiority in this area. It is a distasteful spectacle for one to tout one’s own credentials, and we are rightly wary of one who “protests too much.”
Better to let the larger narrative of one’s life, words and actions, demonstrate what acuity and fitness exist rather than pontification. Few retain their full intellectual powers in their final years; however, we are grateful for the rare ones that manage to do so.
President Trump would not be the only political or religious figure ever to be questioned about fitness for a position. A certain madness has marked many who purported to lead their people, often wreaking havoc, but excused because of a supposed larger purpose. Some have succeeded for a season, but they often flame out after the crisis passes. The alchemy of autocratic decision-making with the presumption of self-sufficiency makes for a toxic concoction.
Humility is a critical feature of enduring leadership, and this quality draws rather than repels. Humility arises out of a balanced awareness of one’s true identity, with all its dependence on the nurturing of others and God’s own providence. In To Love as God Loves, Roberta Bondi writes that humility requires us “to give up the heroic self-image.” All humans are weak and vulnerable, and humility accepts this. It does not seek to exalt self by putting others down, and it eagerly seeks the wisdom others offer.
Ironically, most humans (from humus) see humility as weak, dispensable in the malestrom of seeking to dominate others. Jostling for power and consumed with short-term gratification, people pay little attention to the long-term well-being of others — witness the rancor surrounding funding health care, impoverished schools, and social services.
On Epiphany Sunday, a stranger showed up at my church, came to Sunday school, and plopped down by me. I wish I could say this was a regular occurrence, but the usual roster is pretty set, with the faithful showing up week after week. Commending the courage of this woman to venture to a church she had only engaged online, I asked what brought her. She said that as a child her parents discouraged anything that had to do with religion. Now, as an adult, she wants to explore for herself.
After we had looked through biblical texts, she whispered to me, “I have never heard any of this.” Her remarkable humility struck me. Then as we went into the sanctuary, I observed her wonder at the various aspects of the service, with hymns and practices she did not know. She said she had briefly attended a more liturgical church with a former partner, but it was not for her.
Now she exhibits a kind of famished presence, one who hungers for what she perceives is missing in her life. She is taking responsibility in her faith formation. Her lack of pretense allows her to seek guidance and learn. Humility will beckon members of my class to measure the “insider language” and speak more experientially, a common human language.
Humility always acknowledges lack. Even the Christ, whose mind we desire to indwell us, knew of his need for friendship, spiritual strengthening, and instruction. As we read the Gospels, we sense that there is an improvisatory dimension to his ministry and, at times, he would rather simply say, “Come and see,” rather than explain the nuances of his mission.
Humility does not presume to know what the other seeks, so Jesus asked: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Such a question creates space for spiritual hunger to be voiced and vocational imagination to grow. Humility respects the journey others take, and I sincerely want to accompany the one who showed up seeking her star.
Bondi also observes that humility is not overly concerned to “remain above reproach.” Surely, Jesus was more concerned simply to be with certain folks than he was about the scandal their company suggested. Even though he offered strong words of rebuke on occasion, his purpose was not to belittle or wound others. Humility provides a healthy sense of self that shrinks from diminishing others to elevate oneself. The kind of name-calling present in the current political discourse is hardly worthy of a playground bully, much less in the highest levels of governing.
There is no such thing as mental fitness without humility. It is how God crafted frail creatures of dust.